Anthrax Fear Factor--No Laughing Matter

The FBI says it has dealt with more than 2,300 reported anthrax incidents this month alone. Almost all were false alarms or hoaxes.

On that score, federal charges were filed today in a number of hoax cases. One man arrested in Connecticut could face 5 years in prison if convicted. Actual anthrax cases, so far, are few.
But as CBS's Lee Cowan reports, people are reacting to the fear factor and the reality of "better safe than sorry."

All across the country today it was precaution in the face of peril.

From CNN's headquarters in Atlanta to the offices of the Washington Post to the mailroom at CBS in New York, newsrooms looked like crime scenes even though the official line from authorities was--"The risk is a very minuscule one." So said New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

The new wave of anxiety started after the 7-month-old son of an ABC News producer became the latest and youngest victim infected.

Although the baby is being treated and doing well, the incident sent home an unsettling point: Anthrax doesn't discriminate by age.

In Florida, it wasn't the young, but the old. Seventy-three-year-old Ernesto Blanco, who had been exposed to anthrax in the offices of the Sun tabloid, was back in intensive care--hospitalized with what doctors call a "probable case" of anthrax poisoning. His co-workers, already jittery after one employee died of anthrax this month, will be tested for a second time tomorrow--just in case.

Around the country, fears were so intense that in California state employees were ordered to take a Highway Patrol training course on what to do with mail.

The US Postal Service announced the formation of a special hazardous-materials task force.
But that wasn't enough for some.

Employees at this job placement firm aren't taking any chances. They get thousands of resumes a week, and rubber gloves and face masks are now just part of the job.

"It was a hell of a lot smarter for us to do something to calm this down rather than exacerbate it," says Robert Kenzer, president of the Kenzer Corporation.

Which is exactly the dilemma public health officials are facing--how to warn the public without scaring the public. It's a fine line the nation is getting used to walking.

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